Bahls Makes Me Think: An Interesting Judging Hypothetical And How I Resolved It

A big part of the magic of high school policy debate is that one truly never knows what is going to happen. While most contest rounds follow a similar script, every now and then a debate challenges its participants—both contestants and critics—to think—really think—about some of the fundamental theoretical underpinnings of our game. Sometimes these debates occur between the best of the best in high school or college debate. And sometimes they occur in debates between rising sophomores at a summer debate institute in Ann Arbor. This is the story of one of these latter debates. It is dedicated to Alex Bahls of Wayzata High School, a debater that has challenged me to think about debate theory more thoroughly and creatively during the last three weeks than perhaps any student I’ve ever worked with. This one’s for you, Bahls.

Why take the time to dive into the details of a confounding summer institute practice round? I offer two possible defenses—one high-brow and one perhaps more honest.

First, one of the primary motivations for the creation of The 3NR was to provide a forum for the discussion and development of debate theory. While many of the major theoretical advancements of the past were led at least in part by published academic scholarship, most of today’s innovations in debate theory are a product of in-round contest debating and the back-and-forth between debaters and judges. The existence of a forum like The 3NR (and, to be fair, and e-Debate) makes it possible for this theory-generation process to be extended to include more voices and to be conducted in a way that is not constrained by the time limits and competitive pressures of a contest round.

Second, debate geekery is fun. If you do not consider yourself a debate geek, read no further.

With that caveat in place, let’s begin with a rundown of the events that took place.

The affirmative advocated that the United States federal government expand the Lifeline and Link-up programs to include broadband. The negative read eight off-case positions in the 1NC:

  • T-Social Services must involve Social Workers
  • T-For is Exclusive – Lifeline and Link-up are means-tested at 135% of the federal poverty line
  • Agent Specification
  • Coercion DA
  • Politics DA
  • Charitable Tax Credits CP
  • Supreme Court CP
  • 50-State Mirror CP

In the cross-examination of the 1NC, the affirmative did not ask the disposition of the counterplans. After cross-ex concluded, the affirmative took a few minutes of preparation time and then gave the 2AC order:

  • T-Social Services
  • T-For
  • A-Spec
  • Conditionality Bad

Realizing that they had not asked about the disposition of the counterplans, the affirmative started prep time again and posed that question to the negative. The negative, after briefly considering their options, replied that all three counterplans were dispositional (defined in the most common way — the negative may revert to the status quo unless the counterplan is “straight-turned”).

Undaunted, the 2AC answered the Topicality and A-Spec arguments and then read a relatively lengthy “dispositionality bad” argument (the scare quotes indicate that it was a “conditionality bad” argument re-labeled).

The 2NC kicked out of the States CP, extended the Charitable Tax Credit CP—and argued that it solved better (by extending 1NC evidence tagged as such), and spent the rest of the speech defending dispositionality.

The 1NR extended the Supreme Court CP and read a piece of evidence tagged as “The courts can solve the digital divide by establishing a First amendement right to broadband access – anti-monopoly and right to reply case law establish sufficient precedent.” This piece of evidence was followed up with the statement that “the counterplan solves better than the plan — Court action is best.” The 1NR then extended agent specification.

The 1AR answered A-Spec and extended dispositionality bad—they did not address either the Charitable Tax Credit CP or the Supreme Court CP.

The 2NR kicked out of the Charitable Tax Credit CP, answered dispositionality bad, extended A-Spec, and extended the Supreme Court CP “extend that the Courts solve better – we’re going to go for the Courts CP – they have no defense – the Courts solve better and avoid … yeah, well the Courts solve better. Our Colby 1 evidence says that the Court can solve the digital divide by establishing a First Amendment right to broadband access. Perms check – don’t let them bring up new arguments in the 2AR because that would kill clash.”

The 2AR answered A-Spec, extended dispositionality bad, and made two additional arguments: first, that kicking out of the Charitable Tax Credit CP was illegitimate because the affirmative did not make a permutation or a theoretical objection other than “dispositionality bad” (which were the conditions under which a counterplan could be kicked… essentially, the argument was that a “drop” constitutes a “straight turn”), and second, that there is no net-benefit to the counterplan and presumption should lie with the affirmative.

I resolved that the negative won that dispositionality was good. I resolved that the affirmative need not specify their agent. As a result, I was required to assess whether the plan or the counterplan was preferable.

The facts:

  1. The text of the counterplan was “The Supreme Court should extend Lifeline and Link-up to include broadband.”

  2. Both the 1NR and the 2NR asserted that the CP solved better than the plan because the Supreme Court’s creation of a First Amendment right to broadband internet access was good.

  3. The affirmative’s interpretation of their plan’s agent was “the whole USFG” — which includes the Supreme Court. However, they did not make the argument that the plan includes the counterplan.

Therefore, there were two problems with the counterplan that were not discussed by the affirmative:

  1. The purported reason that the counterplan solved better the plan was clearly false — the counterplan text did not have the Supreme Court create a First Amendment right to broadband internet access.

  2. The plan included the counterplan—action by “the whole USFG” includes action by the Supreme Court.

This then results in several difficult-to-resolve questions:

  1. In the absence of affirmative arguments, should the judge accept or reject the negative’s characterization of their counterplan and its ability to solve the case?

  2. In the absence of affirmative arguments, should the judge accept or reject the negative’s unspoken assumption that the counterplan was competitive with the plan?

  3. If the affirmative had made these arguments—but not until the 2AR—should the judge evaluate them?

I concluded that the answer to questions one and two is that the judge should accept the negative’s characterization. I concluded that the answer to question three is that the judge should evaluate the affirmative’s arguments if they were first expressed in the 2AR. In this debate, then, I voted negative because the affirmative did not advance either of the arguments required to defeat the counterplan.

Was I right? Was I wrong? How would you have resolved this debate?

14 thoughts on “Bahls Makes Me Think: An Interesting Judging Hypothetical And How I Resolved It

  1. David Marks


    The two problems:
    #1 – The CP could mean 1st Amendment. The neg’s claim that it would be 1st Amendment extension is either grounds specification or a predictive claim of the likely grounds. The neg’s precedent arguments prove it’s likely the grounds that the Court would use.

    #2 – I think it’s an aff burden to prove the CP is competitive, once the negative establishes a prima facie case for competition. When the neg said the CP solves better, it’s making a claim about competition. The aff never disputed it. Even if the plan included the CP, the neg still won that using only 1 branch is better than using all 3.

    The three questions:
    #1 – The judge should always accept the team’s characterization of the plan or CP absent refutation by the other side. If I read a plan that says “USFG will do X” and then say “my plan means China will do X” then that’s what the plan means until the other side refutes it. That’s especially true when the neg says it in the 1NC, 2NC, and 2NR, and the aff never uses its opportunity to CX. Frankly, even if the other side refuted it in the 2AR, I’d probably think that’s too late.

    #2 – If the neg says “the CP solves better,” that’s enough for me to establish a claim for competition. It’s an argument that the CP presents a choice that is better than the choice the aff presented. A permutation is a different choice than presented by the 1AC, and it’s an aff burden to make it.

    #3 – 2AR — too late. The neg has to make strategic decisions early in the debate, and is entitled to believe its characterization will hold when the aff conceded the validity of its characterization after several speeches. This is different from “sky is blue vote neg.” The neg presented a choice, said it is better than the aff choice because of a warrant (1st Amendment), and the aff never disputed this in the CX of 1NC, 2AC, CX of 2NC, or 1AR. They had their chance, they lost it.

  2. Roy Levkovitz Post author


    A note before I discuss the 2 specific questions you asked. You obviously messed up by not voting on ASPEC. Enough said.

    Assuming you erred in not voting on ASPEC, you did get the decision right with one qualification.

    We’ve discussed the other hypotheticals previously and I think that you must err on voting for the team that makes the arguments in the debate round. The worst possible thing for debates is a world where judges intervene. Now obviously “Sky is blue VI” crosses that line, but if the negative makes some arg about the CP solving the case better, and the aff has said NOTHING, however dumb the warrant might be the aff needs to respond to it. It is not the role of the critic to say something is stupid or irrelevant or not true, that is an obligation the debaters have.

    Allowing it in the 2ar is awful and dumb, it allows the 2ar to sandbag arguments and does not give the 2nr a chance to justify their claims, and since this is the only 3NR that isn’t cool.

  3. Bill Batterman Post author

    I’m willing to be convinced of this “2AR is too late” position… I’m not entirely sold yet, but I’m getting there.

    What if the affirmative argues that agent counterplans are illegitimate as part of their response to A-Spec but does not point out that the Supreme Court CP is an agent counterplan until the 2AR? Is that too late? The Supreme Court CP decisively IS an agent counterplan, so how could the negative possibly respond to that characterization even if they received speech time to do so?

    I guess my problem with the absolutist version of “2AR is too late” is that it results in comparatively “stupider” decisions–and by that I mean decisions that are premised upon fundamentally illogical/nonsensical presuppositions. I guess I’m more comfortable accepting the “neg lost because their argument was stupid even though the aff didn’t say that until the 2AR” decision than the “aff lost even though the neg’s argument was stupid because the aff didn’t say that until the 2AR.”

    But like I said, I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.


    One other thing: is cross-ex enough? In my new hypothetical about agent CPs, would asking in the CX “so is the Supreme Court CP an agent CP?” (answer: “yes”) enough to justify the 2AR saying “if we win agent CPs are bad, don’t evaluate their Supreme Court CP”?

  4. Scott Phillips

    1. Presumption is against something- change. If one agent acting solves as well as 3 agents acting, presumption is against 3 acting because that is more change.
    2. Truth is obviously an insufficient justification for new 2AR arguments. If something is objectively stupid, it should take 2 seconds of a previous affirmative speech to point it out. Allowing new “true” arguments in the 2ar gives the affirmative an nonreciprocal advantage- they can “fake” debating an issue on its substance only to claim its stupid in the 2AR, or just drop things to focus time on other issues knowing they have the “its stupid” safety web of new 2AR args.

  5. Bill Batterman Post author

    @Scott Phillips
    “Presumption is against something- change. If one agent acting solves as well as 3 agents acting, presumption is against 3 acting because that is more change.”

    New hypothetical:

    1. Aff plan has USFG (interpreted as all three branches) expand broadband access for the poor.

    2. Neg CP has Supreme Court expand broadband access for the poor.

    3. Neg argues that the counterplan solves equally as well as the plan (but not better than the plan).

    4. Aff does not permute the CP or contest that it solves equally as well as the plan.

    Who wins? The affirmative–because there is no net-benefit to the CP? Or the negative–because the CP implies less change?

  6. Colin

    @Bill Batterman
    I guess the post was for scotty p but in my opinion the aff would win because the neg hasn’t proven that the status quo or another policy option is better or that the aff is a bad thing.

    I guess it would also beg the question of if you should err on presumption – for the purposes of debate it might be fairer to vote aff b/c the neg did not meet its burden. but that might be a debate to be had

  7. Travis Neal

    Scott is correct. Colin’s reliance on a burden only applies in an instance of a tie – of two worlds that have no qualitative difference. Presumption is merely a tool to attach a difference in such a deadlock, ergo, the burden has been met by the negative because it is less change. Of course, this might be one of those times when flipping the coin, calling them both lazy and then grabbing a nap is worth it.

  8. Bill Batterman Post author

    @Scott Phillips
    @Travis Neal

    In the absence of argumentation, though, IS presumption the standard? Should the judge begin with the baseline assumption that presumption is in favor of the proposal implying less change from the status quo? Or should s/he begin with the baseline assumption that presumption is in favor of the aff plan if the neg CP does not have a net-benefit? If the neg does not make the “CP is less change” argument, isn’t it comparatively MORE interventionist to make that argument for them than it would be to begin with the presumption that the neg CP needs a net-benefit in order to be superior to the aff? If the neg doesn’t make the “less change” argument and the aff doesn’t make the “needs a net-benefit” argument, who should win?

    (And yes, I realize that this hypothetical requires bad debating. But the question of how to resolve issues of presumption when they have not been explicitly discussed IS useful, I think.)

  9. David Marks

    Aff under the hypo. If the neg doesn’t make a prima facie case to prefer the cp to the plan, the aff should get presumption- otherwise the neg can cp to do the plan.

    Saying “the cp is better than the plan” is sufficient to put the presumption back to neg – but a cp flips presumption until the neg can establish SOME basis for preference. Until the neg can coherently show the cp is a choice the judge should consider as better by SOME standard, aff is entitled to presumption.

    Then again, Scotts right, no one wins.

  10. Travis Neal

    Neither an aff nor a negative ballot is less-interventionist. They are merely the products of different theories of presumption. I contend the belief that a CP flips presumption back aff is generally correct but an unexamined truism. The reason is because the general theory of presumption is the one Scott and I share and generally it yields an aff ballot in a CP evaluation. But this hypo is different. Either way intervention is happening, a neg ballot here is merely more consistent.

  11. Ryan Ricard

    Bill, I’m curious what you thought of the “the you can’t drop the Charitable Tax Credit CP” arg in the 2AR. From how you describe it, this argument seems to be independent of conditionality bad. If neg says “we can’t kick it unless there is perm or theory” and then drops the CP in the absence of a perm or theory, that constitutes a “new offense” independent of whether dispo itself is good or bad. It’s also probably a worse offense – lying vs. defending a strategic option.

    And, since the 2NR is the speech that dropped the counterplan, a new 2AR arg would be the aff’s only recourse.

    Obviously it depends on a thousand little details, but from your description it sounds like the aff is on to something with that arg. How did that shake out in your RFD?

  12. Jason Wright

    @Ryan Ricard

    I think Bill was right on this one… He says the 1NC said “the negative may revert to the status quo unless the counterplan is ‘straight-turned'”, not “we can’t kick it unless there is perm or theory”.

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